Robot Aircraft To Ride Thermal Air Currents

Robot aircraft have a clever new way to conserve fuel - don't use any. Thermal air currents have been providing lift to flyers since the dawn of time. Research currently underway at Roke Manor Research in Hampshire, UK, indicates that this sort of sophisticated flight can be programmed into autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Their plan is to test the idea first by using it to offer guidance to pilots of gliders.

Here's how it works. An on-board camera takes video of the surrounding sky; software is used to analyze the video, looking for gray, dome-shaped clouds that are formed by rapidly rising hot air. The system is also able to integrate real-time weather forecasts and simulations.

When the system is automated, it should enable a UAV to pilot a course that transverses as many thermal air currents as possible. The resulting fuel savings is not just a way to "green" robot aircraft; it will enable longer flights by conserving a scarce resource.

The first place I read about this idea was Roger Zelazny's admirable 1980 science/fantasy novel Changeling. In the story, small, robot planes called 'tracer-birds' detect and ride air currents:

The dark birdforms dotted the mountaintops like statues of prehistoric beasts, wings outspread...

...they stirred, almost simultaneously, as if shaken by a sudden breeze. They began to flex their wings.

Soon, one by one, they dropped from the heights, caught the air, rose, found their way, found their patterns, resumed their journey...
(Read more about Roger Zelazny's tracer-birds)

These science-fictional robot planes were also solar-powered.

If the idea of autonomous robot planes making use of thermal air currents intrigues you, take a look at another ongoing research effort - the Cloud Swift Autonomous Soaring Project.

Via Robot aircraft will ride thermals to save fuel.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 8/21/2008)

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